Ian McHarg’s Pardisan (1975-9) and the Limits to Ecological Urbanism
paper presentation

Histories of Urban Design:
Global Trajectories and Local Realities
ETH Zürich
15-17 November 2021

This paper focuses on Ian McHarg's Pardisan (1975-9), an unrealized project for an ecological park in North West Tehran, Iran, to critically reflect on the genealogy of ecological/landscape urbanism. Based on archival research in McHarg's archives, I examine the iterations of the project from the initial proposal to its published presentation and cancellation after the 1979 Revolution in Iran. Representing something of a departure from his earlier and more well-known North American studies, Pardisan is one of McHarg's first and major large-scale design projects in a non-Western context. The transformation in this project of the map-overlay method from a heuristic device to an instrument of design allows us to examine tensions between neocolonial motifs and the idea of the world as an ecological "kaleidoscope". Further, the project's failure speaks to the limits of an apolitical and ahistorical conceptualization of ecological systems, one which can account for ecological revolution but not political revolutions. Seen through a critical lens, Pardisan throws light on the challenges posed by the uptake by landscape architects of narrowly understood systems ecology and ecological programming. Contemporary disciples of McHarg have modified but not challenged this narrow understanding of ecological urbanism when they uncritically use the neoliberal concepts of resilience and ecosystem services, such as can be seen in the ongoing Fresh Kills Park project by James Corner. While the implication of ecological urbanism in "green gentrification" is its most obvious drawback today, this paper traces the reluctance of the field to question capitalism beyond its ritualistic rejection to the work of McHarg and its enduring influence on the field. In conclusion the paper addresses methodological challenges I have faced in this study of integrating architectural history, theory and social critique.